Sailing Away To A Distant Land - Mahendra Mahey, Manager of BL Labs - final post
Posted by Mahendra Mahey, former Manager of British Library Labs or "BL Labs" for short
[estimated reading time of around 15 minutes]
This is is my last day working as manager of BL Labs, and also my final posting on the Digital Scholarship blog. I thought I would take this chance to reflect on my journey of almost 9 years in helping to set up, maintain and enabling BL Labs to become a permanent fixture at the British Library (BL).
BL Labs was the first digital Lab in a national library, anywhere in the world, that gets people to experiment with its cultural heritage digital collections and data. There are now several Gallery, Library, Archive and Museum Labs or 'GLAM Labs' for short around the world, with an active community which I helped build, from 2018.
I am really proud I was there from the beginning to implement the original proposal which was written by several colleagues, but especially Adam Farquhar, former head of Digital Scholarship at the British Library (BL). The project was at first generously funded by the Andrew W. Mellon foundation through four rounds of funding as well as support from the BL. In April 2021, the project became a permanently funded fixture, helped very much by my new manager Maja Maricevic, Head of Higher Education and Science.
The great news is that BL Labs is going to stay after I have left. The position of leading the Lab will soon be advertised. Hopefully, someone will get a chance to work with my helpful and supportive colleague Technical Lead of Labs, Dr Filipe Bento, bright, talented and very hard working Maja and other great colleagues in Digital Research and wider at the BL.
The beginnings, the BL and me!
I met Adam Farquhar and Aly Conteh (Former Head of Digital Research at the BL) in December 2012. They must have liked something about me because I started working on the project in January 2013, though I officially started in March 2013 to launch BL Labs.
I must admit, I had always felt a bit intimidated by the BL. My first visit was in the early 1980s before the St Pancras site was opened (in 1997) as a Psychology student. I remember coming up from Wolverhampton on the train to get a research paper about "Serotonin Pathways in Rats when sleeping" by Lidov, feeling nervous and excited at the same time. It felt like a place for 'really intelligent educated people' and for those who were one for the intellectual elites in society. It also felt for me a bit like it represented the British empire and its troubled history of colonialism, especially some of the collections which made me feel uncomfortable as to why they were there in the first place.
I remember thinking that the BL probably wasn't a place for some like me, a child of Indian Punjabi immigrants from humble beginnings who came to England in the 1960s. Actually, I felt like an imposter and not worthy of being there.
Nearly 9 years later, I can say I learned to respect and even cherish what was inside it, especially the incredible collections, though I also became more confident about expressing stronger views about the decolonisation of some of these. I became very fond of some of the people who work or use it, there are some really good kind-hearted souls at the BL. However, I never completely lost that 'imposter and being an outsider' feeling.
What I remember at that time, going for my interview, was having this thought, what will happen if I got the position and 'What would be the one thing I would try and change?'. It came easily to me, namely that I would try and get more new people through the doors literally or virtually by connecting them to the BL's collections (especially the digital). New people like me, who may have never set foot, or had been motivated to step into the building before. This has been one of the most important reasons for me to get up in the morning and go to work at BL Labs.
So what have been my highlights? Let's have a very quick pass through!
BL Labs Launch and Advisory Board
I launched BL Labs in March 2013, one week after I had started. It was at the launch event organised by my wonderfully supportive and innovative colleague, Digital Curator Stella Wisdom. I distinctly remember in the afternoon session (which I did alone), I had to present my 'ideas' of how I might launch the first BL Labs competition where we would be trying to get pioneering researchers to work with the BL's digital collections.
God it was a tough crowd! They asked pretty difficult questions, questions I myself was asking too which I still didn't know the answer too either.
I remember Professors Tim Hitchcock (now at Sussex University and who eventually sat (and is still sitting) on the BL Labs Advisory Board) and Laurel Brake (now Professor Emerita of Literature and Print Culture, Birkbeck, University of London) being in the audience together with staff from the Royal Library of Netherlands, who 6 months later launched their own brilliant KB Lab. Subsequently, I became good colleagues with Lotte Wilms who led their Lab for many years and is now Head of Research support at Tilburg University.
My first gut feeling overall after the event was, this is going to be hard work. This feeling and reality remained a constant throughout my time at BL Labs.
In early May 2013, we launched the competition, which was a really quick and stressful turnaround as I had only officially started in mid March (one and a half months). I remember worrying as to whether anyone would even enter! All the final entries were pretty much submitted a few minutes before the deadline. I remember being alone that evening on deadline day near to midnight waiting by my laptop, thinking what happens if no one enters, it's going to be disaster and I will lose my job. Luckily that didn't happen, in the end, we received 26 entries.
I am a firm believer that we can help make our own luck, but sometimes luck can be quite random! Perhaps BL Labs had a bit of both!
After that, I never really looked back! BL Labs developed its own kind of pattern and momentum each year:
- hunting around the BL for digital collections to make into datasets and make available
- helping to make more digital collections openly licensed
- having hundreds of conversations with people interested in connecting with the BL's digital collections in the BL and outside
- working with some people more intensively to carry out experiments
- developing ideas further into prototype projects
- telling the world of successes and failures in person, meetings, events and social media
- launching a competition and awards in April or May
- roadshows before and after with invitations to speak at events around the world
- the summer working with competition winners
- late October/November the international symposium showcased things from the year
- working on special projects
The winners were announced in July 2013, and then we worked with them on their entries showcasing them at our annual BL Labs Symposium in November, around 4 months later.
'Nothing interesting happens in the office' - Roadshows, Presentations, Workshops and Symposia!
One of the highlights of BL Labs was to go out to universities and other places to explain what the BL is and what BL Labs does. This ended up with me pretty much seeing the world (North America, Europe, Asia, Australia, and giving virtual talks in South America and Africa).
My greatest challenge in BL Labs was always to get people to truly and passionately 'connect' with the BL's digital collections and data in order to come up with cool ideas of what to actually do with them. What I learned from my very first trip was that telling people what you have is great, they definitely need to know what you have! However, once you do that, the hard work really begins as you often need to guide and inspire many of them, help and support them to use the collections creatively and meaningfully. It was also important to understand the back story of the digital collection and learn about the institutional culture of the BL if people also wanted to work with BL colleagues. For me and the researchers involved, inspirational engagement with digital collections required a lot of intellectual effort and emotional intelligence. Often this means asking the uncomfortable questions about research such as 'Why are we doing this?', 'What is the benefit to society in doing this?', 'Who cares?', 'How can computation help?' and 'Why is it necessary to even use computation?'.
Making those connections between people and data does feel like magic when it really works. It's incredibly exciting, suddenly everyone has goose bumps and is energised. This feeling, I will take away with me, it's the essence of my work at BL Labs!
A full list of over 200 presentations, roadshows, events and 9 annual symposia can be found here.
Competitions, Awards and Projects
Another significant way BL Labs has tried to connect people with data has been through Competitions (tell us what you would like to do, and we will choose an idea and work collaboratively with you on it to make it a reality), Awards (show us what you have already done) and Projects (collaborative working).
At the last count, we have supported and / or highlighted over 450 projects in research, artistic, entrepreneurial, educational, community based, activist and public categories most through competitions, awards and project collaborations.
We also set up awards for British Library Staff which has been a wonderful way to highlight the fantastic work our staff do with digital collections and give them the recognition they deserve. I have noticed over the years that the number of staff who have been working on digital projects has increased significantly. Sometimes this was with the help of BL Labs but often because of the significant Digital Scholarship Training Programme, run by my Digital Curator colleagues in Digital Research for staff to understand that the BL isn't just about physical things but digital items too.
Browse through our project archive to get inspiration of the various projects BL Labs has been involved in or highlighted.
Putting the digital collections 'where the light is' - British Library platforms and others
When I started at BL Labs it was clear that we needed to make a fundamental decision about how we saw digital collections. Quite early on, we decided we should treat collections as data to harness the power of computational tools to work with each collection, especially for research purposes. Each collection should have a unique Digital Object Identifier (DOI) so researchers can cite them in publications. Any new datasets generated from them will also have DOIs, allowing us to understand the ecosystem through DOIs of what happens to data when you get it out there for people to use.
In 2014, https://data.bl.uk was born and today, all our 153 datasets (as of 29/09/2021) are available through the British Library's research repository.
However, BL Labs has not stopped there! We always believed that it's important to put our digital collections where others are likely to discover them (we can't assume that researchers will want to come to BL platforms), 'where the light is' so to speak. We were very open and able to put them on other platforms such as Flickr and Wikimedia Commons, not forgetting that we still needed to do the hard work to connect data to people after they have discovered them, if they needed that support.
Our greatest success by far was placing 1 million largely undescribed images that were digitally snipped from 65,000 digitised public domain books from the 19th Century on Flickr Commons in 2013. The number of images on the platform have grown since then by another 50 to 60 thousand from collections elsewhere in the BL. There has been significant interaction from the public to generate crowdsourced tags to help to make it easier to find the specific images. The number of views we have had have reached over a staggering 2 billion over this time. There have also been an incredible array of projects which have used the images, from artistic use to using machine learning and artificial intelligence to identify them. It's my favourite collection, probably because there are no restrictions in using it.
Read the most popular blog post the BL has ever published by my former BL Labs colleague, the brilliant and inspirational Ben O'Steen, a million first steps and the 'Mechanical Curator' which describes how we told the world why and how we had put 1 million images online for anyone to use freely.
It is wonderful to know that George Oates, the founder of Flickr Commons and still a BL Labs Advisory Board member, has been involved in the creation of the Flickr Foundation which was announced a few days ago! Long live Flickr Commons! We loved it because it also offered a computational way to access the collections, critical for powerful and efficient computational experiments, through its Application Programming Interface (API).
More recently, we have experimented with browser based programming / computational environments - Jupyter Notebooks. We are huge fans of Tim Sherrat who was a pioneer and brilliant advocate of OPEN GLAM in using them, especially through his GLAM Workbench. He is a one person Lab in his own right, and it was an honour to recognise his monumental efforts by giving him the BL Labs Research Award 2020 last year. You can also explore the fantastic work of Gustavo Candela and colleagues on Jupyter Notebooks and the ones my colleageue Filipe Bento created.
Art Exhibitions, Creativity and Education
I am extremely proud to have been involved in enabling two major art exhibitions to happen at the BL, namely:
Crossroads of Curiosity by David Normal
Imaginary Cities by Michael Takeo Magruder
I loved working with artists, its my passion! They are so creative and often not restricted by academic thinking, see the work of Mario Klingemann for example! You can browse through our archives for various artistic projects that used the BL's digital collections, it's inspiring.
I was also involved in the first British Library Fashion Student Competition won by Alanna Hilton, held at the BL which used the BL's Flickr Commons collection as inspiration for the students to design new fashion ranges. It was organised by my colleague Maja Maricevic, the British Fashion Colleges Council and Teatum Jones who were great fun to work with. I am really pleased to say that Maja has gone on from strength to strength working with the fashion industry and continues to run the competition to this day.
We also had some interesting projects working with younger people, such as Vittoria's world of stories and the fantastic work of Terhi Nurmikko-Fuller at the Australian National University. This is something I am very much interested in exploring further in the future, especially around ideas of computational thinking and have been trying out a few things.
GLAM Labs community and Booksprint
I am really proud of helping to create the international GLAM Labs community with over 250 members, established in 2018 and still active today. I affectionately call them the GLAM Labbers, and I often ask people to explore their inner 'Labber' when I give presentations. What is a Labber? It's the experimental and playful part of us we all had as children and unfortunately many have lost when becoming an adult. It's the ability to be fearless, having the audacity and perhaps even naivety to try crazy things even if they are likely to fail! Unfortunately society values success more than it does failure. In my opinion, we need to recognise, respect and revere those that have the courage to try but failed. That courage to experiment should be honoured and embraced and should become the bedrock of our educational systems from the very outset.
Two years ago, many of us Labbers 'ate our own dog food' or 'practised what we preached' when me and 15 other colleagues came together for 5 days to produce a book through a booksprint, probably the most rewarding professional experience of my life. The book is about how to set up, maintain, sustain and even close a GLAM Lab and is called 'Open a GLAM Lab'. It is available as public domain content and I encourage you to read it.
Online drop-in goodbye - today!
I organised a 30 minute ‘online farewell drop-in’ on Wednesday 29 September 2021, 1330 BST (London), 1430 (Paris, Amsterdam), 2200 (Adelaide), 0830 (New York) on my very last day at the British Library. It was heart-warming that the session was 'maxed out' at one point with participants from all over the world. I honestly didn't expect over 100 colleagues to show up. I guess when you leave an organisation you get to find out who you actually made an impact on, who shows up, and who tells you, otherwise you may never know.
Those that know me well know that I would have much rather had a farewell do ‘in person’, over a pint and praying for the ‘chip god’ to deliver a huge portion of chips with salt/vinegar and tomato sauce’ magically and mysteriously to the table. The pub would have been Mc'Glynns (http://www.mcglynnsfreehouse.com/) near the British Library in London. I wonder who the chip god was? I never found out ;)
The answer to who the chip god was is in text following this sentence on white on white text...you will be very shocked to know who it was!- s
Spoiler alert it was me after all, my alter ego
Mahendra's online farewell to BL Labs, Wednesday 29 September, 1330 BST, 2021.
Left: Flowers and wine from the GLAM Labbers arrived in Tallinn, 20 mins before the meeting!
Right: Some of the participants of the online farewell
Leave a message of good will to see me off on my voyage!
It would be wonderful if you would like to leave me your good wishes, comments, memories, thoughts, scans of handwritten messages, pictures, photographs etc. on the following Google doc:
I will leave it open for a week or so after I have left. Reading positive sincere heartfelt messages from colleagues and collaborators over the years have already lifted my spirits. For me it provides evidence that you perhaps did actually make a difference to somone's life. I will definitely be re-reading them during the cold dark Baltic nights in Tallinn.
I would love to hear from you and find out what you are doing, or if you prefer, you can email me, the details are at the end of this post.
BL Labs Sailor and Captain Signing Off!
It's been a blast and lots of fun! Of course there is a tinge of sadness in leaving! For me, it's also been intellectually and emotionally challenging as well as exhausting, with many ‘highs’ and a few ‘lows’ or choppy waters, some professional and others personal.
I have learned so much about myself and there are so many things I am really really proud of. There are other things of course I wish I had done better. Most of all, I learned to embrace failure, my best teacher!
I think I did meet my original wish of wanting to help to open up the BL to as many new people who perhaps would have never engaged in the Library before. That was either by using digital collections and data for cool projects and/or simply walking through the doors of the BL in London or Boston Spa and having a look around and being inspired to do something because of it.
I wish the person who takes over my position lots of success! My only piece of advice is if you care, you will be fine!
Anyhow, what a time this has been for us all on this planet? I have definitely struggled at times. I, like many others, have lost loved ones and thought deeply about life and it's true meaning. I have also managed to find the courage to know what’s important and act accordingly, even if that has been a bit terrifying and difficult at times. Leaving the BL for example was not an easy decision for me, and I wish perhaps things had turned out differently, but I know I am doing the right thing for me, my future and my loved ones.
Though there have been a few dark times for me both professionally and personally, I hope you will be happy to know that I have also found peace and happiness too. I am in a really good place.
I would like to thank former alumni of BL Labs, Ben O'Steen - Technical Lead for BL Labs from 2013 to 2018, Hana Lewis (2016 - 2018) and Eleanor Cooper (2018-2019) both BL Labs Project Officers and many other people I worked through BL Labs and wider in the Library and outside it in my journey.
Where I am off to and what am I doing?
My professional plans are 'evolving', but one thing is certain, I will be moving country!
To Estonia to be precise!
I plan to live, settle down with my family and work there. I was never a fan of Brexit, and this way I get to stay a European.
I would like to finish with this final sweet video created by writer and filmaker Ling Low and her team in 2016, entitled 'Hey there Young Sailor' which they all made as volunteers for the Malaysian band, the 'Impatient Sisters'. It won the BL Labs Artistic Award in 2016. I had the pleasure and honour of meeting Ling over a lovely lunch in Kuala Lumpa, Malaysia, where I had also given a talk at the National Library about my work and looked for remanants of my grandfather who had settled there many years ago.
I wish all of you well, and if you are interested in keeping in touch with me, working with me or just saying hello, you can contact me via my personal email address: [email protected] or follow my progress on my personal website.
Happy journeys through this short life to all of you!
Mahendra Mahey, former BL Labs Manager / Captain / Sailor signing off!